Raw material Agave
Though the strange looking agaves don't seem at all suitable for human consumption its uses are wide-ranging. The roasted plants have been eaten since the beginning as sweets and the young floral sprout is a specialty of local cuisine, for each plant produces only a single one.
Of the 288 specified kinds of agaves from the family of Agavaceaes 274 are native to South Mexico. To distill Mezcal approximately 30 cultivated as well as wild species are used, which range in growth from 8 to 15 or more years. Agave angustifolia (Espadín) is most typically used and is also the genetic ancestor of Agave tequilana Weber (Azúl). Espadín grows relatively large and yields a high grade of convertible sugars. They also reproduce faster than other species.
The most interesting Mezcales are made from wild agaves, where –similar to wine- the terroir has an important impact. Natural surroundings, location, altitude, soils and many more factors leave their trace in the product. The most popular wild agave for Mezcal is Agave potatorum, called “Tobalá”. This plant grows in forests in remote places in the mountains of Oaxaca, making the job of harvesting it very intricate.
Ending its vegetative phase (estar a sazón) the plant starts to grow a stem (quiote, varejón, escapo floral) out of its middle, later bearing the flowers. The young shoot gets cut, making the middle of the plant (the heart or corazón) swell with juices. After several months the heart of the agave is harvested by cutting of the leaves (rasurar) and chopping it off the ground. The plant now resembles a pine cone or pineapple or what is called a piña. An exception is A. karwinskii, a yucca-like plant with a wood-like trunk.
During its vegetative phase the agave already grows rhizomes (hijuelos, mecuates). When mature it produces a single flower and then dies if not harvested first. The flowers are pollinated by insects, birds (colibris) and bats, but when this does not happen agaves are also able to grow young plants (bulbilos, apomixis) out of the flowers themselves. In cultivation this is often provoked by cutting off the blossom.
Mezcal is a part of the holistic use of raw materials by local farmers who convert the cut stems into food, the leaves into rope and the fibers left over by the fermentation into reinforcement for mud bricks. Mezcal production follows the rhythm of agricultural activity, so few palenques are in use all year long. Sowing has to be done during rainy season, for example.